This past week’s announcement that well known guitarist Joe Satriani was taking the British band “Coldplay” to court for copyright violation of his music reminded me of a discussion I’ve had many times with other pastors about using material or outlines from others’ sermons when we preach.
A bunch of information is available on the internet and in the blogosphere regarding this issue. A well known pastor in my own denomination spoke out against the practice quite passionately during an annual convention a few years back. So where do we cross a line if there is one? How much usage of others’ material is ethical without feeling like we cheated our congregations? Books like Thomas Nelson’s “Preacher’s Sourcebook” are published each year with a combined 156 messages and outlines in them. (Full sermons for Sunday mornings and outlines for Sunday and Wednesday evenings) not to mention special messages for funerals and weddings. Zondervan publishes a similar annual each year as well. Are these books ethical offerings for overworked preachers?
I guess it depends on your perspective and character. I’ve read others’ thoughts that claim anything other than purely original work is not acceptable and an abomination. Well known pastors like Steve Sjogren are on the other end of the spectrum and encourage purchasing sermon series and using them in our ministries. There are contexts that govern both lines of thinking and in both instances, I’ve not heard either side encourage a total copying of the material being used. That to me is where we have to draw the line.
For a sermon to have the life changing power it must have, it must first have spoken to the preacher. I internalize my message to the point where I want to be able to preach completely without notes if need be. I go through a process each week that prepares me for this. In brief, I print the text I’m preaching in a triple spaced, 12 point format with 1.5 inch margins on the left and right of my paper so I can have adequate space to diagram and mark up the text to my liking. I make notes, lists, note figures of speech, etc. before I begin the process of laying out my own outline. I then work through cross references using a tool like the New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge to help me with any questions of clarifications I might ask of myself. Only after this, do I consult any commentaries to validate my own findings. After that, I sharpen the focus of the message, prepare my introduction and close, and then by Saturday, I am ready to rehearse it.
There’s more to my preparation but I’ll save it for a future series but you get the idea. In any case, I sometimes prepare my message from scratch but at other times, have utilized an outline from the Preacher’s Sourcebook to help me when I’ve had an exceptionally busy week. I always make the message my own though. Even if I use an outline, I go through the steps above and in most cases, usually change the order of the outline and title of the message because of what God is doing through me in my study.
In short, I have no qualms about using these tools to preach provided the person using them take the time to prepare and internalize the messages. Simply popping in the CD-ROM and printing the message verbatim and preaching it like it’s your own is legal. The author of the book, Robert J. Morgan, has said so many times. But even he would agree to do that would be to put yourself in such a powerless position that your message can come off dry and canned and people will leave. Preaching is still the hallmark of the service. We need to give it it’s rightful preparation time even when using tools like these.
What are your thoughts. Has anyone ever asked you about these tools and if you use them? What do you tell them? I’m curious about what those of you who preach think about “sermon plagiarism”. How do we define it. How do we avoid it?